10 Things You May Never Have Known About Dublin


The Gaelic name for Dublin is ‘Baile Atha Cliath’ which translates literally as ‘town of the hurdle ford’, a description of the bank of wooden hurdles built up across the river Liffey by the Vikings. The word ‘Dublin’ is actually a composition of two Gaelic words: ‘dubh’ meaning ‘black’ and ‘linn’ means ‘pool’ (or ‘mire’). Thus the literal translation of the words from which Dublin gets its name is Black pool!
Crossing the ‘hurdle ford’ was not without its dangers. In 770 AD a band of Bon Valley raiders were drowned crossing the Liffey at the hurdle ford.


The famous victory by Brian Boru over the Vikings at Clontarf in the year 1014 marked the end of the Viking raids on Ireland. By this time however, the Vikings had already begun to assimilate into, and make their mark on Gaelic society.

One such Viking was Sitric Silkenbeard, the King of Dublin. Despite the reputation of the Vikings Silkenbeard was a devout Christian and was responsible for the founding of the famous Christchurch Cathedral at the top of Dame Street in Dublin City Centre. His reign saw the first coins ever minted in Ireland. They bore his image on one side and a cross on the other. He remained in power until 1036 and spent the last of his days on the island of Iona, Scotland.


The sixteenth century saw a fierce rivalry develop between the Butlers and Fitzgeralds. Violent clashes between the two groups were commonplace with one such melee occurring in 1512. Butler, the Earl of Ormond retreated and was forced to take refuge in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. He barricaded himself behind a stout wooden door and refused to leave until he got assurances for his safety. After some negotiation a deal was struck. In order to seal the deal a hole was hacked through the wooden door so that the two leaders could shake hands. It is thought that the modern expression ‘chancing your arm’ originated from this event. From that time on a ‘chancer’ was someone who took a risk or a gamble. The hole in the door can still be seen to this day.


In 1924 the main street in Dublin City had its name changed from Sackville Street to O’Connell Street, in honour of ‘The Liberator’. This change had for long been resisted by the English Vice-Chancellor, Chatterton, who prevented Dublin Corporation from granting the wish of the vast majority of Dubliners. Not to be outdone, the local citizenry opted to use the new name in spite of the lack of official recognition.
Dublin Corporation joined into the spirit of things by allowing the ‘Sackville’ street signs to deteriorate and even threatened to rename a street where prostitutes were known to frequent as ‘Chatterton Street’.
The creation of the Free State in 1922 finally allowed for the official transformation of Sackville Street into O’Connell Street.


Kilmainham Jail near Inchicore in Dublin was originally built on a site known as ‘Gallows Hill’. A jail had existed on the site since the year 1210 but was in such neglect that it was demolished and rebuilt in 1796. By the time of the 1798 rebellion the jail was overcrowded but further development did not take place until 1863. Many famous Irish famous historical figures were imprisoned there including Robert Emmett, Charles Stewart Parnell, Padraig Pearse, Countess Markievicz and Eamon DeValera. The prison was closed down in 1924 and is now a museum heritage site, a national monument.


The early part of the twentieth century was a magical time for Irish literature. Yeats, O’Casey and Synge were prominent in the famous Abbey Theatre while Dublin provided no less than three Nobel prizewinners. James Joyce was born in Rathgar although there are twenty houses in Dublin city that claim him as an occupant, owing to his family constantly moving about during his early years. His most famous work is Ulysses. Dubliners still celebrate ‘Bloomsday’ every year, named after his most famous fictional character Leopold  Bloom. George Bernard Shaw was another Dubliner who won the famous Novel prize, renowned for ‘Pygmalion’ on which the movie ‘My Fair Lady’ is based. Dubliner Samuel Beckett also won a Nobel, and is perhaps most remembered for writing ‘Waiting for Godot’.


The 1907 theft of the ‘Irish Crown Jewels’ still remains a mystery nearly a century later. The famous regalia of the ‘Order of Saint Patrick’ were to be placed in a safe in a strongroom in Dublin Castle but, when it was found that the new safe was too large to fit into the strongroom the safe was located in the Library instead.
An inspection of the safe in July revealed that the treasure had disappeared. The haul was valued at 30,000 pounds, a huge sum at the time and has never been recovered.


The famous Atmospheric Railway was opened in 1844. The line ran from Dalkey to nearby Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) on the southside of the city. This unique system relied on atmospheric pressure to force the railway carriage up the hill to Dalkey and then relied on gravity for the return to Kingstown.

A 483 yard pipe ran the length of the track from which air was extracted by a steam-driven pump at the Dalkey end. The resulting vacuum caused a piston to move along the pipe, to which was connected the train. Wax-covered flaps in the pipe opened and closed allowing the piston to move along its length. As the train moved along a wheel pressed down on the pipe sealing in the vacuum as progress was made. Problems with this system meant a man had to follow the train to manually seal the flaps.

Momentum from the journey would allow the train to travel the final part of its journey when the pump had been stopped. The piston was then hooked onto the train for the return journey back to Kingstown.  If the train stopped short of the station the third-class passengers were required to push the carriage the final part home. Occasionally the train would fly past the Dalkey station and off the tracks at the far end.

The system worked well for a decade but was eventually abandoned because of the problems with sealing the vacuum flaps and because of developments with steam-driven engines. The grease and wax that was used on the flaps was also a great attraction for rats who caused repeated damage to the line. The tunnel that was constructed along the line only offered 3 inches of head clearance making it a tricky proposition passengers sticking their heads out of the windows!


The part of Dublin city just off Clanbrasil Street has for centuries been known as ‘The Blackpits’. The origin of this name is unclear. One theory suggests it is so named because of the large number of dead who were placed there during the ‘Black Death’. Another suggestion alludes to the black vats used by tanners during the eighteenth century.


The General Post Office in Dublin was first opened in 1818. A suggestion that the building be used as a Catholic Cathedral was rejected by the authorities as they did not want a religious institution in such a prominent place in the city.

The building was to gain international prominence however, when it was seized during the ‘Easter Rising’ of 1916. The rebellion, which was led by Padraig Pearse, was very much centered at the GPO which was gutted during the battle that ensued.

It was rebuilt during the 1920’s but several of the original bullet-holes from the Rising were left untouched, as a reminder of the turbulent history of perhaps the worlds most famous post office.

About the author

Michael Green Michael Green is Manager of The Information about Ireland Site

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